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France's Warning Sign

What can the United States learn from France’s peace brokering in Côte d’Ivoire?

February 12, 2003

What can the United States learn from France's peace brokering in Côte d'Ivoire?

It was the classic case of selective intervention in a poverty-stricken nation that had been ruined by a spate of corrupt, merciless leaders — and, in recent years, stricken by civil wars.

A peace accord was negotiated, hailed as the best face of 21st century neo-colonialism.

After all, despite military intervention from outside, long-time squabbling rebels had agreed at last to cooperate in bringing democracy to a benign and long-ignored corner of the world where it had never been in place before.

Yet, after less than a month, the whole thing blew up — in more ways than one.

The French intervention in the little, civil-war plagued West African nation of Côte d’Ivoire gave the lie to the “Inside the Beltway” mantra that the French and other continental Europeans are hopelessly insular, selfish — and cynical.

According to Washington folk wisdom, these countries are no longer capable of flexing military muscle or diplomatic clout to project power effectively — and get things done in the wider world.

Yet, the classic example of Côte d’Ivoire can highlight the many problems that come with high-minded humanitarian re-engagements in underdeveloped corners of the world.

As was learned in Somalia, the end of the Cold War led to the gradual collapse of teetering states — before turning them into failed states.

Therefore, the reason why the case of Côte d’Ivoire is so important to the global community is not at all to do with pooh-poohing the French for apparently having failed.

Rather, it offers a well-timed chastening from Paris to Washington's all too gung-ho warrior class.

The latter would have been well-advised to consider the inherent contradictions and sobering lessons of Abidjan and Yamoussoukro before attempting a regime change in Iraq.

Yet, nobody can say that this turn of events had gone unnoticed in Washington. True, U.S. television editors and brazen cable TV pundits alike wasted virtually no time focusing their attention on the "the Dark Continent."

The U.S. print media, though, certainly did not ignore the story.

The New York Times and the Washington Post in particular did a fine job monitoring it and explaining its intricacies to their readers. With those newspapers, U.S. policymakers could follow the story from January 24, 2003 onward.

That was the day the French government brought together representatives of President Laurent Gbagbo’s shaky government and his rebel challengers to broker a peace deal. The meeting took place at Marcoussis, outside Paris.

Now, compare the challenge in Côte d’Ivoire to the successful toppling of Iraq’s former President Saddam Hussein. Côte d’Ivoire's internal strife is almost "peanuts"compared to the distrust characterizing Iraq's key components.

It was certainly an enticing case for national rebuilding. While Côte d’Ivoire is no Iraq in terms of having the potential to become at least the second-largest oil producer in the world, it is the world's largest cocoa producer.

That is one reason why, until 1999, it was repeatedly held up as a model of stability and prosperity in a region notorious for a lack of those values.

Also, French diplomats were hardly unfamiliar with the little West African nation.

Until President Charles de Gaulle allowed it to declare independence in the early 1960s, it was a French colony. And since then, it had quietly remained in the Francophone sphere of West Africa.

It was with considerable pride that the French announced in the later part of January 2003 that they had brokered a piece accord. Yet, a little over two weeks later, the Marcoussis deal was already unraveling.

An angry, violent backlash against it has now ruined French interests in Côte d’Ivoire worth tens of millions of dollars.

The Muslim rebels in the north and west were furious with President Gbagbo for not handing them the key interior and defense ministries as they had expected.

Meanwhile, President Gbagbo's own hard-line supporters rioted en masse — and vented their spleen on many of the 15,000 French businessmen in Côte d’Ivoire.

President Gbagbo has since appeased the rebels by starting to include them in the government. But his own constituency’s support for the accord remains shaky.

What is so eerie about this situation is that it contrasted starkly with the Bush Administration's optimistic scenarios for rebuilding Iraq — which began to unravel when looting ensued after the supposed U.S. victory.

It was in America's best interests to take a long, hard look at the festering mess in little Côte d’Ivoire before engaging its troops in iraq. The French already had thousands of armed officers in the country.

But Côte d’Ivoire did not have a population marinated for decades in totalitarian conditioning, as Iraq's 25 or so million people have been since the current regime was established there in 1968.

There was no need for the French to militarily conquer the country.

Although the rebels enjoyed strong support from neighboring Burkina Faso and Liberia, there was certainly no danger of a broader backlash erupting against French interests throughout West Africa, as the United States are experiencing in much of the Arab world.

Even so, with everything having gone in favor of the French, their intervention still went off the rails.

There was, of course, those among Beltway pontificators who dismissed French woes in Côte d’Ivoire as a reflection of their small-scale ineptitude.

It was not therefore applicable to U.S. war-making and nation-building on a far grander scale such as in Iraq. Yet, before they threw around such obvious clichés, they should have remembered that 40 years ago, something equally foreboding happened.

Then, an equally confident and gung-ho generation of Washington policymakers and pundits dismissed an unfortunate example of French nation-building and war-making in another obscure little Third World country — Vietnam.